Contrast has been advertised as the newest videogame indie gem. It sports a look that wouldn’t be out of place at a 1920s European Circus, is made by the unknown Compulsion Games, and ambitiously attempts to combine puzzle-platforming gameplay with a touching story about childhood and family. Taking into account the budget the studio had to work with and remembering just how wrong other indie games have gone in this direction, AMY comes to mind, I was ready to see if Contrast lived up to its own expectations. As the credits rolled, it is clear that the game is good, but a few things hold it back from being truly great.
Didi is an imaginative little girl. While her mother is out at clubs singing, she is all alone in her room. So, being the bright young mind that she is, she sneaks out every night with her imaginary friend, Dawn, to see the sights. It is during one of these nights that she discovers the return of her father to the city and attempts to find a way to bring the two together again.
If there is one thing Contrast does extremely well is that it nails the tone of seeing a world full of sleaze and darkness through the optimism and cheer of a child’s mind. Despite the story introducing mobsters, burlesque shows, and the cold unfeeling mechanism that is the law, the story doesn’t veer into seriously dark territory. Yet, it also keeps its feet firmly planted in a version of the real world that feels solid, despite the risks of dropping completely into Lynchian surreality by having you control Dawn.
In fact, I’d say that Contrast’s story manages to hit child logic quite well without becoming morose or saccharine. Single parent families don’t have it easy, and Didi manages to maintain an air of natural maturity with such surroundings but keeps optimistic, even when the game heavily implies unsettling and even macabre undertones with the concept of escapism through interacting with Dawn. The story even has something I haven’t seen enough of in video game narratives: a storytelling twist that didn’t make me want to hang myself in depression.
There is one element of the narrative that feels slightly forced. While Dawn and Didi are both represented with complete character models, every other character in the cast is represented as a shadow on a wall or background. In matters of keeping the game’s budget reasonable, it’s a great way of keeping the story focused and keep the gameplay central, but there are moments where it feels used for the sake of a puzzle and nothing more.
As was implied above, Contrast is a puzzle-platformer that focuses on shadow placement. As Dawn, you alternate between jumping around in 3D space, and merging into a wall and jumping on shadows in a 2D space. The trick to mastering these sections comes from manipulating objects in the normal world to get shadows projected at the right size and shape to cross to a new area. The mechanic brings up memories of the mediocre Lost in Shadow on the Wii, except with a much more interesting atmosphere and more engaging gameplay
As easy as it is to give Compulsion Games a break for their first big project, the platforming suffers from a lack of polish. Jumping feels solid but moving in 3D space feels like skating on ball bearings half the time. More times than I can count, Dawn got stuck in the world geometry and reverted to a default model pose while I struggled to get her unstuck. This actually lead to me having to restart the game on one occasion. Controls can feel sticky and unresponsive from time to time, especially when you must rapidly alternate from 3D to 2D and vice versa, which make situations that require precise timing aggravating. The difficulty curve feels inconsistent, one of the hardest puzzles being mid-way through and a supposedly difficult puzzle near the end bypassed completely by several well placed jumps.
Not everyone can have budgets to allow for every technical slip-up, but once you look past that, the gameplay is adequate, using standard staples such as key-hunting puzzles, putting boxes on pressure plates, and some perspective tricks with the shadow mechanic. It’s a shame all the same though. After a very promising story, the gameplay complementing it wouldn’t feel out of place of something mid-tier from the early 2000’s. On the whole, it works and keeps things going along, but be prepared for some touchy jumps and trial-and-error.
Contrast’s distinct look is what initially drew me to it. The aesthetics of Jazz Lounges, 1920s industrialism, and vaudeville mix with the game’s stylized graphics to make a world that feels like a mix between Tim Burton and Pixar. Also, it must be said that the lighting engine is mesmerizing in how it casts shadows and keeps them consistent as things keep going. But there are moments where the illusion is broken. Either the texture tears in the distance, or the touchy gameplay leads to glitches, or the character models spaz out and look like something from a modeling student’s nightmares.
Fitting its world, Contrast has a great musical score. Jazz music starts to play the minute the start screen appears and I wound up listening to it for ten minutes before remembering to start playing. The voice-actors, the ones behind Didi and her mother in particular, equip themselves admirably as well.
There are moments where Contrast feels at odds with itself. Where the story hits tender moments, it’s undone by a graphics glitch. A simple straightforward sequence turns into a test of patience because the controls have nodded off. I had genuine frustration because of these problems, then the story organically hits another proper beat and eased my anger like a balm. Much like performers of the time, the game kept tantalizing me with its potential, then it spat in my eye with its flaws. Yet, once the six hour adventure was over, I didn’t find it intellectually vapid or absolutely broken to the point of insult. All of the anger and all of the love finally evens out to something half-decent, even if the shadow of what could have been greatness still looms large.
If you are an early adopter of the Playstation 4, I would definitely recommend you at least try Contrast when you get the chance. It looks unique when it behaves itself. Its story tries to keep gameplay and narrative together and only stumbles from time to time. It’s short but doesn’t overstay its welcome. However, if you are still focusing on what is now considered a last-gen machine, you may want to wait if you are expecting the next Braid or Journey.
- Solid World and Characters
- Well Put Together Storytelling
- Child Character with a Heart
- Graphical Glitches
- Unpolished Gameplay
- Shadow Mechanic Can Feel Forced